Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Ten PBL New Year’s Resolutions

By Andrew Larson
Science Facilitator, Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

The Holidays are almost over. This inevitably means that it's time to start thinking about school starting up again... just when your head finally stopped spinning.

Being a PBL educator sometimes (cough) leaves your head spinning a bit faster than the norm. There are so many matters to which you must attend, and even the best intentions result in some structural project pieces getting cast aside, neglected, put off. And that’s ok… we all realize that we can’t expect perfection from ourselves; we can, however, take time to reflect on the areas we want to revitalize with respect to our practice. Here are some ideas, in approximate order of importance, for PBL educator both new and old.

10. Take time to look back at your curriculum map. Was there content that didn’t get the due attention that it deserves? Sometimes, a project just doesn’t go as deep as you thought it would. From the point of view of an upward- spiraling curriculum, maybe this just means that the content will come back for an encore, with a bit more (or different) emphasis. Additionally, we have to ask ourselves whether all of the grandiose plans we laid out for the year are still realistic given all of the factors and obligations that the school year handed us. Now’s a great time to revise or adjust the curriculum to make sure it all gets done, and with integrity.

9. Anticipate the Snowpocalypse. For my Midwestern and East Coast colleagues, we all know that whatever happens in January and February, it’s going to likely be a mess. Whether the delays and cancellations are due to snow, freezing rain, flooding, or fog, learning is going to be a disjointed and interrupted affair. And when kids get the Snow Day Frenzy, they are distracted. Plan shorter PBL units during this time, or create plenty of benchmarks. That way, you’ll be closer to a natural stopping point when it gets crazy outdoors.

8. Anticipate future community partner needs. In looking towards the spring, are there people or organizations that you would love to get on board? It’s never too early (and, in fact, often too late) to reach out to a community partner for a collaborative experience with your students. I know for a fact that I will need at least two experienced carpenters in May, so I’m going to call them over the winter holiday to see if they can get a couple of dates on the calendar now.

7. Plan for testing. If there is a culminating, high- stakes test on the horizon, budget the time you’ll need in order to feel comfortable sending your students “to the wolves.” Anticipate that you’ll want a project deadline no closer than two weeks to that testing date, knowing that the deadline will probably be a bit closer to testing than that after you’ve adjusted for snow days, complications, and life in general.

6. Revisit your assessment practices. Do you wish that you’d given your students more opportunities to speak, write, or collaborate? Remember, it’s not fair to assess students on skills that they haven’t adequately practiced, so find opportunities to scaffold their growth in these areas. There should never be just a single grade for a communication or collaboration, because that implies that they didn’t get feedback in advance of a culminating presentation. Balance is everything, though; not every project needs a verbal presentation or a visual aide in a traditional format. Mix it up!

5. Publicize your students’ greatest successes. It’s never too late to showcase the incredible creativity, quality, and innovation that students bring to their projects. Sometimes, in the frenzy of day to day survival, we don’t adequately showcase those successes. Take the time to post a picture and accolades to your school’s social media sites, contact the newspaper, write a blog post or letter to the editor, or create a display case item.

4. Rethink your routine. Did any aspect of your professional life suffer at the expense of another? Did you spend too much time grading and not enough thinking creatively or getting ideas from your professional networks? Did your physical well- being suffer because you felt the need to finish everything? Create blocks of time in your week for things like thinking about new project ideas, collaborating with peers, cleaning your desk (a favorite Friday prep period activity of mine,) exercising, and yes, grading. And while on that topic…

3. Rethink grading. Nothing weighs on me more heavily than grading… you, too?  With respect to grading and numbers 6 and 4 on this list, really take a look at what you grade, and why. Yes, feedback is immensely important. Ask yourself, though… for what am I looking? Do I need to grade every question on every handout? Am I really just looking for evidence of effort, or for specific demonstration of content or skill mastery? Could you do more spot- checks and take fewer immense binders home in the trunk of your car? Think of the time you could re- assign to creative project development if you reduced unnecessary grading by 20% or more.

2. Thank your community partners. They are that “X Factor” that makes PBL authentic. If not for them, projects are not the rich experience that they should be. They need to know that, and hear our gratitude. So send them a note. Better yet, just make a list of people you need to thank and when we’re back in school, have your students send them a hand- written, sincere (and, naturally, grammatically correct) note.

1. Celebrate your successes! You’ve earned your winter break, and it's NOT, I repeat, NOT, over! Continue to indulge your guilty pleasures; you'll need to store up some of that recharging to get through February. Continue your leisure reading, video gaming, Netflix binging, therapeutic shopping, cuddling, spoiling your pets or kids, exercising, and sleeping. Happy Holidays! It's not over yet!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Reflection on Semester Highlights

by Caleb Abshire
Grade 9, Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

Now that I have a few projects under my belt, I think I can finally pick my favorites so far.  All of the projects that I have undertaken so far have been a blast.  I’ve learned something interesting from every one of them, like how to streak a plate in Biology, or how to write a really good narrative in English. Projects have always been fun for me, but a little daunting, and going to a PBL school has helped me overcome that fear.

At first I was afraid, not so much because I thought projects would be time consuming, but because I was afraid of failing.  I was afraid that I wouldn’t be perfect, which I think is a big problem in today’s society. Society puts too much emphasis on grades and not enough on ingenuity.  PBL schools help kids get good grades because of their ingenuity, and that’s why I enjoy projects so much; I don’t have to be perfect.

And yet, while I don’t have to be perfect, I still want to put in a perfect effort.  I think that perfect effort and a ingenuity are the things that make or break a person in the world.  Albert Einstein flunked math, but with ingenuity and quite a bit of effort, he managed to come up with a lot of the theories that we use today.

While I like all of my projects this semester, I have a couple favorites, both individual and collaborative.  Individual projects are not the basis of PBL, but they do help us learn to manage our time and prepare us for individual tasks in the real world. My favorite individual project this year would probably be writing our English CRA. For that project, we had a choice between two books to read: The World Without Us or Ishmael. I chose to read both, and both are fantastic.  That project probably was the one that put the most stress on me, but in the end, I got to write a paper on my philosophies and how Ishmael supported them.  I love to talk about philosophy, and I love to read, so this project was fun. But it was also challenging because of the amount of work that I had to put into it, while balancing band and other activities.

Group projects are a much bigger part of PBL, and as such I feel I should also include my favorite group project. My favorite group project was designing a rainwater harvesting system for GEO/ IED (Geometry + Introduction to Engineering & Design.) In that project, our task was to create a rainwater harvesting system for our school garden without changing anything about the current method for diverting rainwater from the roof to the ground. This was a challenge because the current system left little to no room for improvement or modification. We settled on incorporating the placement of a garden shed into our design, and using the roof of that as the source of rainwater. I had fun with that project because everyone was working, and they were working well. We were working hard because we were practicing things that sparked our interest in a safe environment, and we could help each other.

I think that’s what everyone looks for in a project: an opportunity to practice what they love to do and hopefully increase their aptitude through doing it.  And I think that’s what all projects are about, and I don’t just mean school projects. These experiences prepare us for the “project” of life, and help us decide how we will contribute to mankind.  PBL lets us explore all the possibilities.

PBL is about so much more than just getting through the school day.  It’s not that students don’t get tired or don’t complain; it’s that they tire, and complain, while happy.  They’re happy because they are doing something they love and figuring out solutions for real problems. PBL is ideal for ambitious students to be pushed further and harder, and helpful for not-so-ambitious students to figure out what they want to do in their life.  PBL is a new method for a new age of scholars.  This new age of scholars will fix new age problems.  And it all starts with kids having favorite projects.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Project Highlight: This I Believe

by Heather Hester
English Facilitator, Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School

The culture in our school has cultivated a closeness that is unparalleled to experiences I have had in traditional schools. Students trust each other. There is a sense of earned respect for one another, but they don’t always know what life outside of the school walls is like for one another. The combination of these factors creates an environment that allows for students to share some of their personal stories.

Seniors start the year with a PBL that requires them to submit an entry to the “This I Believe” essay contest through NPR.  The contest has been around since the 1950’s and features written work by famous figures as well as every day folks. The seniors are led through a series of workshops that encourage them to consider moments in their lives that have defined current beliefs. They ask for workshops to learn story telling writing techniques. Series of editing and revising are also necessary components to strengthen writing skills and polish essays before they are submitted.

Another requirement is that they present their essays to the class. They practice using their voice, eye contact and gestures to help tell the story of their essay instead of reading it inanely from the page. It is during these presentations that I find myself developing more empathy for my students than ever before.

Because of this PBL I hear from kids like Jacob Dunn who shared statements such as, “I grew up in an abusive home, and while I was never hit, spent my childhood breathing unhappy air.” He spoke about spending Christmas with no heat and eventually what hit home was when he said, “I think what truly changed me was being homeless. There is honesty in throwing everything you own away.” This story gripped my heart when he shared that his belief is that “living is the reward for staying through hard times.”

In another presentation I was compelled to laugh when Aaron Burton stood in front of his class to ask if we are “fans of the fan.” The sounds of his bedroom fan not only helped him sleep at night but drowned out the arguments that he didn’t want to hear. He had written his essay about the seriousness of appreciating the simplicity in life but so cleverly threaded his paper with his keen sense humor.

In yet another presentation, our class learned from Valeria Guerrero that despite suffering domestic violence, rape and poverty, she strives daily to get the education her mother wanted but never had the chance to earn. Her goal is to make her mother, her hero, proud. Her belief that no human should be made to feel less than any other is testament to her genuine maturity.

As a result of what started as a PBL using NPR’s historical essay contest as an externalized enemy, ended as one of the most powerful opportunities for honesty and understanding that my seniors will experience in this final year of high school.  I think Isaac Joyner encapsulates it best in his essay, “As the French say, ‘Ne craidriez pas la peur,’ which translates to ‘Don’t be afraid of fear.’” He encourages that “it is often in the face of fear that we do the most spectacular things.”  What begins as a scary, intimidating English 12 project ends with tears and hugs and understanding.